Gordon Takes The White Flag

Jeff Gordon announced today that the 2015 season will be his final full-time season driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, stepping away after his 23rd full season.

Gordon announced the decision with this statement:

“As a race car driver, much of what I’ve done throughout my life has been based on following my instincts and trying to make good decisions,” Gordon said. “I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the offseason, and I’ve decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship. I won’t use the ‘R-word’ because I plan to stay extremely busy in the years ahead, and there’s always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.

“I don’t foresee a day when I’ll ever step away from racing. I’m a fan of all forms of motor sports, but particularly NASCAR. We have a tremendous product, and I’m passionate about the business and its future success. As an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, I’m a partner with Rick (Hendrick) and will remain heavily involved with the company for many years to come. It means so much to have the chance to continue working with the owner who took a chance on me and the incredible team that’s stood behind me every step of the way.

“Racing has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling in my life. The work we’re doing with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation will continue to be extremely important to me. Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving.

“I’ll explore opportunities for the next phase of my career, but my primary focus now and throughout 2015 will be my performance in the No. 24 Chevrolet. I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.

“To everyone at NASCAR, my teammates, sponsors, competitors, friends, family, members of the media and especially our incredible fans, all I can say is thank you.”

The 43-year old ranks third all-time in the series with 92 wins, behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), although he has the most during the “modern era” (post-1972).  Gordon ranks fourth all-time with four series championships, behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6).

After growing up in California and Indiana, his career began in quarter midgets and sprint cars before moving to stock cars in 1990, and driving in what was then the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for owner Bill Davis in 1991-92.  Rick Hendrick noticed the young Gordon, and gave him a ride for the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup Series) for 1993, running his first Cup race in Richard Petty’s last at Atlanta in 1992.  Gordon has run the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports ever since, and is even an equity owner of the Hendrick team, owning a share of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 car.

Following a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993, Gordon won his first event in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in ’94.  His second win came at Indianapolis, known as the Mecca of motorsports, in the first ever stock car race there, the 1994 Brickyard 400.  To many it is still considered Gordon’s greatest victory, as it impacted more that just Gordon’s career, but an entire sport.

Following an eighth place points finish in his sophomore season, Gordon won his first Cup title in 1995, and after finishing second to teammate Terry Labonte in ’96, won back-to-back titles in ’97-’98, becoming the fourth driver at the time to win three titles in a four-year stretch.  Gordon won 40 races in that four-year stretch, one of the best stretches in NASCAR history.  Over one stretch in 1998, Gordon won six out of seven races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, two of the sport’s biggest races.

In 1999-2000, Gordon finished sixth and ninth in points, although after the run of the four years before, it seemed like a letdown.  But Gordon responded in 2001, winning his fourth title, at the time becoming the third driver to do so (Jimmie Johnson has since joined him).

While Gordon has not won a title since, he has remained extremely competitive during the “Chase Era” in the Sprint Cup Series.  In 2004, Gordon finished third in the inaugural Chase, only losing by 16 points (in the points system used at the time, that was the rough equivalent of 4 points today).  Three years later, in 2007, Gordon set a modern era record with 30 top 10s in the 36 race schedule, but finished second in points to Johnson.  In 2009, he finished third behind Johnson and fellow teammate Mark Martin, joining together for the only 1-2-3 points finish in history by a set of three teammates.

After being added to the Chase in 2013 after initially missing by one point under cloudy circumstances, Gordon was very competitive in 2014, winning four times including a special win at Indianapolis (more on that later), and came within a point of advancing to the final round of the new Chase format featuring elimination rounds, finishing sixth in points.  A late race incident with Brad Keselowski is what likely cost Gordon the chance to compete for his fifth title in the finale, and he ended up sixth in the standings.

In the 11 seasons of the Chase era to date, Gordon has only missed the Chase once (remember, it used to be harder to get in than it is now with 16 spots), falling short in 2005 despite four wins.

In addition to series championships, Gordon has had success in the biggest individual races each year.  He has won three Daytona 500s, in 1997, ’99, and 2005.  In each instance, Gordon pulled off and aggressive move to take the lead, then held off the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett in the ’90s and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Johnson in ’05.  Gordon is one of only five drivers to win at Daytona three or more times, and only Petty and Cale Yarborough can claim more wins in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” than Gordon.  He has also won the July race at Daytona three times.

At Darlington, Gordon has won the Southern 500 more than any driver in the history of that race, which dates back to NASCAR’s second season in 1950, with six wins (1995-98, 2002, ’07).  He is one of eight drivers to win the Coca-Cola 600 three times or more (1994, ’97-’98), with only Darrell Waltrip and Johnson having more wins than Gordon.

In 1997, he won all three in the same year, becoming the second driver to win the “Winston Million”, a promotion sponsored by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds to reward any driver that won three of the four “crown jewels” (along with the spring race at Talladega), joining Bill Elliott, who accomplished the feat in the promotion’s first year in 1985.

As mentioned, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 in 2014 for a very special victory.  The win was Gordon’s fifth in the event (1994, ’98, 2001, ’04, ’14), making him the first driver in any series, in any form of racecar, to win five races at the Speedway, including in the Indianapolis 500, where the record of four wins is shared by legends AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser Sr.

Gordon’s competitiveness in 2014 and the energy he has shown today throughout the media engagements surrounding his announcement show he will be competitive in his final season.  This is something the sport hasn’t ever seen from a retiring driver (although several driver’s careers have been ended by injury or death during their prime).  Gordon will try to join Ned Jarrett as the only driver to retire a Cup Series champion, but Jarrett walked away after winning the title, so no one knew they were watching his final season as it happened.  With Petty’s final season in 1992, dubbed by The King as a “Fan Appreciation Tour”, he wasn’t at all competitive, particularly considering the merits of his career, with a high finish of 15th eight years after his final win.

Gordon said in a teleconference this afternoon he doesn’t want there to be ceremonies at every track commemorating his final season throughout the year, but instead said the time for that is in 2016, when he will still be at the track but will not have any competitive obligation, and can be more proactive with the fans.

That all goes with Gordon’s choice not to use the word “retirement” in discussing his decision.  Gordon said he perceives retirement as someone moving to the beach or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair.  He says he’ll still be very active in the sport, and other business interests, but will do so without competing.

To fans who don’t understand the magnitude of Gordon to his sport, think of this as equivalent to Derek Jeter’s final season, which we all just witnessed last year.  When Gordon came into the sport in the early ’90s, NASCAR had come a long way with ESPN’s coverage throughout most of the ’80s, but was still viewed as a Southern sport.  There was good reason for that, as only five of the top 15 finishers in Gordon’s first Cup race in 1992 were from outside the South.  (By the way, Gordon finished 31st that day.)

In the last race of 2014 at Homestead, only two of the top 15 were from the South, showing the national explosion the sport has taken in terms of its participants.  Furthermore, Gordon’s career has seen tracks built in California, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada which host Cup Series races, as there are now NASCAR fans everywhere.

The first driver from outside the South to win a Cup Series title was Alan Kulwicki, who did it the day Gordon’s career began in the 1992 season finale.  His success would be short-lived, as he died in a plane crash the following April, during Gordon’s rookie campaign.  Gordon went on to become the first superstar who wasn’t Southern by origin, and in many ways led the way for the likes of Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick, all of whom have won championships in the Chase era.

Gordon has never missed a start since his debut in 1992, running in 761 consecutive races since.  Barring the unforeseen, Gordon will pass Ricky Rudd (known as “The Iron Man”) on September 27 for the consecutive starts record, after Rudd ran 288 races in a row from 1981-2005 (Note: I was a Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002 when Rudd broke Terry Labonte’s consecutive starts record.)

It won’t be the only record owned by Gordon, even if you somehow overlook his wins and championships.  Gordon currently holds the all-time record of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one pole, and has won the third most poles all-time, once again behind Petty and Pearson (exactly the way they stand in wins).

As for what’s next for the #24 car, a number which Gordon is identified with in the sport as much as Earnhardt and #3 or Petty and #43, it seems likely that Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup Series champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, will move to the seat in 2016, although there is no official word from Hendrick.  Elliott won the championship in the Xfinity Series last year, in the same year he graduated from high school, driving for JR Motorsports, a team competitively allied with Hendrick which has, at times, served as a bit of a satellite operation for Hendrick.  Elliott also ran races at lower levels for Hendrick before moving to the Xfinity Series at the age of 18.

Someone on Twitter today suggested Elliott make his Cup Series debut at Homestead, to parallel Gordon’s career, making his first start in the season finale before running the following season full-time, and running the last race of a legend, just as Gordon did in Petty’s final race.  Elliott is expected to run a handful of Sprint Cup races in 2015, but I doubt Hendrick would want to wait until the finale to break in the youngster.  Instead, I’ll suggest that, for the same reason of parallels to Gordon’s career, Elliott could make his debut March 1 at Atlanta, the very track where Gordon made his 23 years ago.

On a personal level, Gordon was one of my first two sports heroes, as my very young self was endeared to both Gordon and Chipper Jones at a very young age.  I was taught by my aunt to respond to the question “Who’s the best driver?” with the answer “Jeff Gordon” before I could read that question.  That being said, today was obviously bittersweet, and although I knew the day would one day come, I was very surprised by the timing of it, with Gordon coming off his most competitive season in years.

Brian France, the Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, commented on Gordon’s announcement, saying:

“Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race. We have all enjoyed watching his legend grow for more than two decades, and will continue to do so during his final full-time season. His prolonged excellence and unmatched class continue to earn him the admiration of fans across the globe. Today’s announcement is a bittersweet one. I’ll miss his competitive fire on a weekly basis, but I am also happy for Jeff and his family as they start a new chapter. On behalf of the entire NASCAR family, I thank Jeff for his years of dedication and genuine love for this sport, and wish him the very best in his final season.”

I’ll agree with France that Gordon is one of the greatest in the history of the sport.  Coming from a member of the France family, the family that started it all in 1949, and has overseen the sport throughout the entirety of its existence, I think that’s a pretty accurate measure of what the 92 wins for Gordon have meant to the sport.

So, fans, savor this season, as Gordon runs 36 more Cup Series races.  Because you are truly watching one of the greatest ever turn his final lap.

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NASCAR Changes Chase Format

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced today big changes to the format of the annual “Chase for the Sprint Cup”.  Beginning this year, there will now be 16 drivers instead of 12 to make the Chase, with the 16 drivers entering the “Chase Grid”.  Those 16 will be race winners from the first 26 events of the season, and the highest point-earners without a win, if there aren’t 16 winners.  The 10-race Chase will be broken up into 4 segments, or “rounds”.  The “Challenger Round” will consist of the first 3 races.  Any Chase driver who wins in those 3 races will move on to the “Contender Round”, along with the highest earning drivers in points, totaling 12 drivers in all.  After the points are reset, those 12 will compete in a similar system over the following 3 races, Chase races 4-6, the “Contender Round” to cut the field to 8, with race winners, followed by the highest drivers in points moving on.  After another points reset, those 8 compete in the “Eliminator Round” in Chase races 7-9 to cut the field to 4, with race winners and at least 1 highest points earner advancing to the “Sprint Cup Championship” at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Chase race 10.  That event will be a winner-take-all finale, with the highest finisher among those top 4 drivers taking home the championship.

Let’s start with the first 26 races; the “regular season”, if you will.  Winning a race will, in fact, almost guarantee a spot in the chase, as the 16 spots will go to up to 16 race winners and (if there aren’t 16 race winners) the highest remaining drivers in points.  By the way, drivers do have to attempt to qualify for all 26 events and remain in the top 30 in points to be eligible.  While France said part of the reason for the changes is to somewhat eliminate points racing (and instead make everyone race for wins), there will still be some points racing most years for the final spot or so, depending on how many winners there are.  Only twice has there been more than 15 winners over the first 26 races of a NASCAR season (and only once in the “Modern Era”), so it is very likely there will still be some points racing going on at Richmond in September.  One scenario flatters me, however:  it is theoretically possible for, if there are 16 or more winners, a driver to finish 2nd in every race from Daytona to Richmond and not qualify for the Chase.  Whatever happened to consistency being such a big deal?  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch all failed to win races last year, and Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray all failed to win in the first 26 events before winning during the Chase, so its possible some very good drivers who have solid consistent seasons will be on the outside of the Chase (although there were only 11 eligible race winners during the first 26 races, so all of those except McMurray would have qualified; I’m just using those names to say “what if”).  Even still, I find it hard to believe that if the 30th place driver has a win at, say, Talladega, that he’s more qualified to compete for a championship than my hypothetical driver who finished 2nd every week?  I sure don’t think so.

One aspect of the regular season I question is the fact that the winner of the Daytona 500 is very likely to qualify for the Chase, having that assurance several months in advance.  If a driver wins 2 races early, they are a mathematical lock into the Chase.  I don’t know that its right for a team to be locked in after, potentially, 2 races.  That’s practically the equivalent of a team leading the division standings at the end of April to be locked in to the MLB playoffs in October, a theory that wouldn’t be reasonable for the game of baseball.

While in the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds winning will automatically advance a driver to the next round, there will still be points racing to fill the rest of the spots.  In some ways, I don’t think the racing during those rounds will be much different, from the perspective of the drivers or the fans, other than the fact there are 3 “elimination races”.  And what’s with these names of the rounds?  Just say the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (or Semifinal) rounds of the Chase (or playoffs, or raceoffs), like every other sport.

One aspect of this system that will certainly create excitement is the winner-take-all finale.   The highest finishing driver out of the 4 still alive for the championship at the Homestead race in November will be crowned the champion.  These will be 4 drivers running well leading up to the finale, so there’s a good chance that highest finisher will be the winner of the race.  France said that simplicity, particularly for the sport’s casual fans, was important, which is why, as he put it, it was important that the last race was not a math contest, but instead was as simple as possible.  It is theoretically possible a driver could finish down in the 30-somethings and still win the title if all 4 drivers have problems, although, as France mentioned, that’s possible now.  Another possible scenario is something unusual deciding the title, such as fuel mileage.  However, I remind you of the last race in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki risked running out of gas with about 20 laps to go to stay out front and lead one more lap than Bill Elliott to get the bonus points for leading the most laps and win the title.  And that happened after a 29-race points battle, much less a one-off championship event.  (They only ran 29 races back then, and had no Chase.)

As I said, France mentioned the importance of simplicity.  And while it will be simpler to understand the championship battle during the last race, I don’t think it will be during the first 35, and particularly during the first 9 races of the Chase.  Multiple points resets, and some drivers being locked in each week while others are points racing in the final race of a given round, will likely lead to some confusion among fans, particularly those casual fans who don’t watch every lap of every race.  Also, having one set of circumstances for the first 26 races, another set for each round of 3 races, and another set for the finale will likely lead to confusion as fans (and possibly even drivers or the media) get mixed up over what rules and criteria apply for each round.  The explanation of the new system on the NASCAR news site jayski.com was nearly a thousand words long, whereas one could explain the old system in a much more efficient way.  And, by the way, I got into NASCAR at a very young age.  At that time, I could understand the points system, even with the mind of a young child, because it was a year-long, cumulative battle.  Even the original Chase format we’ve used for the last 10 years (in several variations) could make sense to a young child, even if it took a little explanation.  Try explaining this system to a 5-year old and see if they understand it.  Odds are they won’t.

This post may sound like I’m totally against this system, but that’s actually not true.  While there’s certainly bits and pieces of the system about which I’m skeptical at best, the overall concept of a “tournament”, if you will, and a winner-take-all final race will certainly bring excitement at the end of the season, and perhaps draw more fans to the racetrack and to their TVs.  I’m all for anything to spread the sport of racing, just as I am with the other sports I follow and write about (baseball, football, golf, college basketball).  While I won’t give the system a 10 out of 10 rating, a 5 is about right, because (as I mentioned) I am intrigued by the concept but have a few reservations about certain aspects of the overall format rules.

Another positive about this system is that races in the spring may be made more exciting by more aggressive racing, as drivers try to punch their ticket to the Chase while they have a chance.  In the past, while each of the first 26 races have been important, the overall importance was on points, or “the big picture” as many drivers and crew chiefs call it.  Finishing 2nd was a “good points day”.  And while that will still be true, there will be so much stock in winning that drivers will surely be more aggressive in going for wins so that “good points days” don’t matter since they’ve won a race or races.  I use races in the spring as an example, because in the past, after a 2nd place finish in a March race, a driver’s mindset may have been “There’s still plenty of time for me to get more good finishes and qualify for the Chase in the top 10 in points or the wild card.”  Now, that may change to “that may have been my best shot to win, and I just lost that chance.”

Many will say it wouldn’t be fair for a driver to be dominant all season, only to have a tire problem, or a mechanical or engine failure at Homestead and lose the title.  But many people probably said the same thing about the original Chase format 10 years ago.  And besides NASCAR’s fan base swings a little conservative (let’s be honest), so change isn’t necessarily popular anyway.  But consider this about that dominant driver scenario I just mentioned:  in the NFL, a team could go 16-0, and lose in the first round of the playoffs.  In MLB, a team could win their division by 30 games and be swept in the first round of the playoffs.  In college basketball, a 31-1 powerhouse 1-seed will eventually lose to a 17-15 small school 16-seed in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament (and if you don’t believe a 16 will ever beat a 1, choose one of the 7 instances of a 15 beating a 2 to make your argument).  Having to win in the playoffs to validate a great regular season and win a championship is part of sports, across the board.  So from that big picture perspective, seeing NASCAR as one of a number of American sports, this isn’t much different than the playoffs we all love in every other sport (there’s even one in college football starting this year, finally).

Regardless, the news of the day, which shifted a little attention to NASCAR and away from the Super Bowl, at least for a few minutes, reminded us that the NASCAR season is just around the corner.  The Daytona 500 is in just 24 days, and there will be cars on the track at Daytona in just 15 days.  And from a purely points perspective, due to the new rules this will be the biggest Daytona 500 ever, as the winner will be almost guaranteed to have punched their ticket to the “Chase Grid”.

For further reading, go to  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2014/1/30/nascar-announces-changes-to-chase-for-the-nascar-sprint-cup-format.html

NASCAR Puts Gordon In Chase, Justice Done

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the media on Friday to announce actions they were taking in regards to the situation between Joey Logano and David Gilliland in the closing laps last Saturday at Richmond.

I wanted to write about the Logano/Gilliland situation yesterday, as details emerged, but I was, frankly, tired of the Richmond issues, and ready to move on.  Logano, according to reports, was given a position in the closing laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 by David Gilliland, who slowed to let Logano by after radio communication between representatives of the two teams.  Logano ended up finishing in the top 10 in the standings by a single point, as a result of both this and the MWR manipulation (read earlier posts).

NASCAR announced today that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports are both on probation until December 31, the penalty for, as we hear so often, “actions detrimental to stock car racing.”

The big news here, however, came when France announced that NASCAR was allowing Jeff Gordon and his #24 Drive To End Hunger team to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  This is an unprecedented decision, as no one has ever been allowed into the Chase after failing to mathematically qualify.  France said this was (I’m paraphrasing) a cumulative decision by the sanctioning body after multiple organizations manipulated the Richmond outcome and, as a whole, worked against Gordon and greatly damaged his chances of qualifying. He mentioned keeping the integrity of the sport, which is the number one goal, and that this is the only way to assure Gordon a level playing field.

As a fan, it feels like Jeff Gordon keeps getting bad breaks on the track.  Today he finally got a very, very good one, this time off the track.

NASCAR has made the right call here.  Gordon was robbed on Saturday night.  It wasn’t by just one organization, and it really wasn’t even that all the organizations in hot water now were specifically working against him on Saturday night.  It just so happened that when multiple organizations manipulated the outcome of the race to help themselves, they collectively worked to the disadvantage of Gordon.  It took six days from Saturday night to this afternoon, but the “integrity of the sport,” as France called it, is finally intact.

Of course, in a perfect world, Martin Truex Jr. would still be in because he as a driver and his #56 team did nothing wrong; it was the rest of Michael Waltrip Racing that has caused chaos in the NASCAR garage.  The 50-point penalty that was handed down, however, was part of an overall organizational penalty, and although I disagree with some aspects of the penalty, sanctions for MWR were certainly necessary.

NASCAR will meet on Saturday with all drivers, crew chiefs, and teams to discuss the “rules of the road” and provide clarity moving forward for what is right and what is over the line (and where the line might fall).

It’s a meeting Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson, and Rick Hendrick will be more than happy to attend.

Note: NASCAR Press Conference Transcript link:

http://www.jayski.com/news/pages/story/_/page/NASCAR-Richmond-penalty-press-conference-Sept-13-2013

Another Note:  Darrell Waltrip, as we know, loves numerology.  He’s at it again with this interesting tweet:  “In 2013 on September the 13th a 13th driver was added to the Chase, be easy to remember this day!”